The history of movies about gay people in the military, much like the real-world history, is a checkered one. If they happen at all, they’re either small-budget independent films or international features, both of which are typically under-the-radar for mainstream moviegoers. Movies about basic training, on the other hand, have a long history, including Private Benjamin, Biloxi Blues, and Full Metal Jacket.
Writer/director Elegance Bratton has combined the two to tell a version of his own story in The Inspection. In the film, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is 25 years old and living in a homeless shelter in Trenton, New Jersey in 2005. He has long been estranged from his mom, Inez (Gabrielle Union) because of her unwillingness to accept the fact that he’s gay.
Needing some type of positive change in his life, he decides to join the Marines. The bulk of the film follows French and his fellow recruits as they go through the hell that is basic training under the leadership of drill instructor Laws (Bokeem Woodbine). Try as he might, French can’t hide his sexuality, and so the experience for him becomes not just surviving the rigors of boot camp, but also the ire of homophobic people around him.
French is undeniably the focus of the film, but any good basic training movie lives and dies on the strength of its supporting characters. Bratton seems to understand that fact, and features a number of fascinating people, including Laws; Rosales (Raúl Castillo), an officer who takes a particular interest in French; Harvey (McCaul Lombardi), the bully of the unit; Ismail (Eman Esfandi), a Muslim who faces his own backlash coming soon after the 9/11 attacks; and more.
The obstacles that French faces on a daily basis are intense, but Bratton knows not to overplay his hand. The characters who confront French are all portrayed in believable ways, with no hint of caricature. Likewise, the leaders of the squad are given more to do than just yell at the recruits, making them closer to fully-rounded people. And the training sequences all pass the test of being realistic enough to think that the actors are actually being put through the wringer.
The way the story is organized, only a few scenes at the beginning and end feature Union, perhaps the most recognizable actor in the film. And yet Bratton has written those scenes so well, and Pope and Union perform them so effortlessly, that they are among the best the film has to offer. The depth of the hurt that each feels can be felt instantaneously, making their complicated history knowable with just a few pointed lines.
Pope, whose biggest roles to date were on Ryan Murphy’s series Pose and Hollywood, is the breakout star of the film. There is no artifice to his performance or an attempt to make the part showier than it is. He plays it straight up and does one hell of a job. Union, as mentioned, is also great, as are Woodbine and Castillo.
Sometimes personal stories, especially for a first-time feature filmmaker like Bratton, can be too much to be told correctly. But he shows a skill here of laying out the details expertly and eliciting strong performances from all the actors that he immediately announces himself as a filmmaker to watch now and in the future.
The Inspection opens in theaters on November 23.